What if?

That old moggy, Yusuf Islam used to tell us to remember the days of the old school yard, but when it comes to your school days, I’m sure there are some things you remember fondly while there are others you’d rather forget.

It might seem strange to relate now, but right up until it was banned in Victorian Government schools in the mid-1980s, it was not unknown for students to be walloped and whacked in pursuit of the getting of wisdom. “The cuts” as it was bluntly termed was a fact of school life which students endured on an occasional basis, only to bounce back again like the proverbial India rubber ball at the end of a Tendulkar cover drive. My own father used to proudly tell how earlier in the Century, he probably held the record for getting the cane on his very first day of school, then age five. For myself I had to wait until Grade 5, and then it came only in the form of a strap across the palm, the reward of confession and of believing that tripe about George Washington and the cherry tree.

That strap wielding, grade 5 teacher of painful memory was also the music teacher at our primary school, sporadically substituting strap for baton and baton for strap while requiring students to sing their times tables, in mathematical progression and in reverse. It was a task we hated but there’s no doubting its effectiveness in getting those numbers to lodge inside stubborn heads. In retrospect he was a pretty good teacher, if a product of an earlier era and one day I recall during a history lesson he wrote two letters onto the board, I and F. One of the smallest words in English he explained, but in history, a word that had the largest of all meanings. I started to pay attention after that.

One day the teacher showed us a famous newspaper photograph of a flood that had happened in Elizabeth Street, Melbourne. Elizabeth Street he said had in the earliest days of settlement been a creek and wouldn’t you know it, that creek was still there, deep down underneath the pavement. The natural landscape might have been modified by people building over it, but the newspaper showed what could still happen to the town if a flash flood rolled down the street.

Neville Bowler’s Walkley Award winning picture of Elizabeth Street in flood, February, 1972. (Source: The Age) https://www.theage.com.au/national/victoria/from-the-archives-1972-chaos-as-floods-batter-melbourne-20200213-p540oi.html

The picture won a Walkley Award for the photographer, the late Neville Bowler which just goes to show what can happen when you’re the right man, in the right place at the right time. Years later I went to work at the same newspaper as Neville and even then people were still talking about the day Nev got his toes wet.

You could see Elizabeth Street as a microcosm of the bigger picture. With a population trending towards 8 billion people, it’s hard to say what it is that constitutes a natural landscape any more for it is an obvious truth that wherever you find people, you will find a world that has been altered from its original state.

Australia’s first people probably started the wheel rolling on this continent when they arrived here 60,000 years ago, even without actually discovering the wheel. It was a small taste of what was to come. In colonial Victoria, the gum trees of Gippsland would be methodically ringbarked by settlers as they moved up into the upper valleys. For decades the dead shapes of the trees stood like white sentinels over the new pastures thus created, silent testament to the advance and the cost of European civilization.

William Howitt (Source: Wikipedia, British Library)

In the Mallee country of Western Victoria the scrub land was flattened and stumps were uprooted. It was a practice that loosened the soil and resulted in dust storms that in dry years darkened summer skies. But it was in the gold country of Central Victoria that the most dramatic change occurred. The earth was turned upside down and mountain streams turned to sludge by eager diggers in their pursuit of an elusive mineral wealth, a fact noted at risk to his health by that recorder of Goldfields society, William Howitt. Soon after visiting the Bakewell’s Yallambee, Howitt very nearly died of dysentery after drinking from a fouled water hole on his way to the fields.

Morning mists on the Plenty River, September, 2019. (Picture GIF by I McLachlan)

Clean water was at a premium on the goldfields and there were riots when ethnic minorities were accused of spoiling the water, riots that probably had more to do with a latent racism on the fields than the wish for environmental conservation. Australia is a dry land and much has been made of harnessing our meagre water resources. Bridged over, and tunneled under, scooped out and stream altered almost to oblivion, our rivers are today a much changed environment. Melbourne’s first dam was of course on the upper catchment of the Plenty River and these days if you went looking for it, I think you’d be hard pressed to find anything that might qualify as a natural landscape within the City of Banyule. Even those places you might think meet the requirements, like the Banyule Flats or the Plenty River Corridor are more or less a reinterpretation of the world the early settlers found here in the primordial state.

Bakewell era survey map of “Yallambee”. (Source: Bill Bush Collection)

When you look at a map of the City of Banyule, it’s readily apparent that the landscape is dominated by the confluence of three water systems, the Yarra and Plenty Rivers and the Darebin Creek. The Plenty forms the eastern most boundary of Yallambie but it is worth noting that the suburb is also crossed by at least three intermittent streams, two of which are tributaries of the Plenty River with the other being a tributary of the Yarra. All have or rather had names.

“Yallambie was crossed by three main gullies running southward to the Eltham (Lower Plenty) road, and the Wragge family would have names for them. The most westerly one, just east of Greensborough Lane, was called ‘Dead Horse Gully’ – for obvious reasons. The next was ‘Ferret Gully’, because a lost ferret was seen there from the road, and recovered. The reason of referring to the third one as ‘Adams Gully’ was lost within a few decades, but it may be that an employee named Adams had occupied the huts shown beside this gully on the early plan of the Bakewell farm.” (Calder: Classing the Wool, p76)

These streams are still there in their various forms, hidden or altered. Adams Gully, (shown in the above slideshow in pictures from 1978-9 from the National Archives of Australia) also known as the Yallambie Creek or more prosaically the Watsonia Drain, crosses the breadth of the Simpson Barracks from its headwaters at the top of Greensborough Rd to near the ARPANSA facility where it is piped underground before emerging again on the other side of Lower Plenty Rd. At the back of Corandirk Place the creek bed has been delightfully restored but whether this landscape is anything like its pre-settlement state is doubtful. All the same, the overall effect is pleasant enough and tellingly, in a strange sort of way, not entirely unlike a Japanese garden.

“…not entirely unlike a Japanese garden.” The Yallambie Creek (Adams Gully) below Corandirk Place, August, 2021. (McLachlan)

The middle stream, known as Ferret Gully in the 19th Century, was dammed in the 1990s to form the central feature of the Streeton Views’ award winning landscape design. It was built to retard the increased stormwater flows from the estate and last year the Environmental Coordinator at Banyule Council, John Milkins told me on enquiry about this subject: “Our understanding of water sensitive urban design has changed hugely in the past three decades since Streeton Views Estate was established. The reeds have an important role around the full extent of the ponds in pollution treatment and in habitat provision.”

The pond at Streeton Views Reserve, Yallambie, May, 2020. (Picture by I McLachlan)

So there is my point. It’s known that our oceans are located “downhill from everywhere” and it’s true that practically everything that falls onto the ground and into the streams will eventually end up there. With all the building work going on in Melbourne these days, the short term concern has been about the effect of all that muddy water and sludge on our aquatic environments.

Borlase Reserve woodland before the road builders moved in, May, 2019. (Picture by I McLachlan)

This is no more true than at the western most of these Yallambie gullies, Borlase Reserve, the so called Dead Horse Gully. The Gully forms the head waters of the Banyule Creek and, as previously reported in these pages, this area has been ear marked as the spring board for the State Government’s ill-famed North East Link tunneling project. Even as I write this, this gully is in the process of being dug up, re-routed and reimagined in a measure initially intended to relocate utility services prior to construction contracts being awarded. How this and the later tunneling project itself will eventually effect the Yallambie community and particularly the beautiful Banyule wetlands downstream is anybody’s guess, but with so many reports and environmental statements having been written and debated on this subject ad infinitum, I suppose they know what they are doing…

The Banyule Wetlands at the back of Viewbank, June, 2021. The source of the Wetlands comes from the Banyule Creek rising from Dead Horse Gully in the south west corner of Yallambie. (McLachlan)

If you think about it though, it’s not just the downstream Banyule wetlands that we need to be thinking about. It’s everywhere because everywhere is on the downhill side of gravity. It’s all going to end up in the ocean eventually for the ocean is the ultimate depository of every road side spill and discarded plastic drink bottle. Islands of floating plastic in the ocean and the less visible microplastics and nanoplastics have been putting the willies up marine biologists for a while now. From the reservoirs and roads to the reinstated and reinterpreted river systems, we have a lot on our plastic plates these days.

The Plenty River at Yallambie, August, 2020. Every time a car is washed on the side of the road in Melbourne, all that soap has to end up somewhere. (McLachlan)

It might seem like flogging a dead horse to say so, but with what’s going on up at Dead Horse Gully right now, will we get the chance to look back on ourselves in the future, at the plastics and pollutants, the road tunnels and empty apartment towers, at the gas fracking mines and choking oceans and ask the question, “What, if?”

2 thoughts on “What if?”

  1. Always a great read Ian. Informative and thought provoking. Well done!
    Ps. The Borlase worksite has also recently become infamous as a Tier 1 COVID 19 exposure site!.,


    1. Thanks Pauline. Yes, that explains why I haven’t included a current photo from Borlase. I had intended to take my mask and camera past there during daily permitted exercise, but thought better of it when I saw it listed as Tier 1.


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